12 boxing idioms in English
Although the sport still enjoys a relatively large following today, the huge popularity that boxing had over a century ago is obvious when you look at the impact that the sport has had on the English language. In fact, there are plenty of common boxing terms and situations that you use in a figurative sense every day without even knowing it! Let’s have a look at some of the most popular boxing idioms heard in English all the time.
1. in your corner
In a boxing match, the corners are the two opposite angles of a boxing ring where boxers rest between rounds. A boxer typically has a second or cornerman (usually their coach or trainer) who instructs them between rounds. This practice gave rise to the phrase in one’s corner. Figuratively, when someone is in your corner, they are on your side in an argument or dispute.
2. on the ropes
Are you on the ropes? Boxing rings are typically enclosed by four ropes running around the four edges of the boxing platform, attached to 5-foot poles in each corner. As a boxer, when your opponent has forced you against the ropes with their attack, you are in trouble, or ‘on the ropes’. In everyday use, someone ‘on the ropes’ is in ‘a state of near collapse or defeat’.
Knockout refers to the action when one boxer knocks down his opponent with a blow. (The blow is often called a knockout punch.) This use of knockout has no doubt influenced the use that refers to ‘an extremely attractive or impressive person or thing’. A knockout is also known as a KO, and occasionally appears as the verb kayo. The word is derived from a use of the verb knock that dates back to at least Shakespeare’s time (the OED cites the verb form in Henry VI, Pt. 1: ‘Many haue their giddy braynes knockt out’).
4. down (or out) for the count
A boxer is down for the count (or out for the count in British English), or defeated by his opponent, when he is knocked to the canvas and fails to rise within ten seconds. The phrase now refers to defeat more generally, as well as to someone who is soundly asleep or unconscious.
Have you ever ‘thrown in the towel’? Traditionally, a boxer (or, more often, someone in his corner) would admit defeat by throwing a towel into the ring. (The practice of actually throwing towels is rather limited today.) The phrase dates from the early 20th century, although the practice of throwing something into the ring to admit defeat goes back at least to the mid-19th century. The object in question, though, used to be a sponge, not a towel.
Maybe you’ve been on the verge of throwing in the towel, when you were saved by the bell. In this case, the ‘bell’ in question refers to the bell rung during boxing matches to signify the end of a round. When a boxer is being counted out, the bell saves them from being down for the count. For those who grew up in the ’90s, the phrase is also associated with the high school sitcom Saved by the Bell.
7. below the belt
Hits below the beltline are generally considered illegal in boxing. A common term for a hit ‘below the belt’ is a low blow. Both of these terms now refer broadly to any unfair or unsporting behavior.
8. bob and weave
Although the term is now used throughout the sports world, bob and weave began as a boxing technique, in which a boxer would ‘make rapid bodily movements up and down and from side to side.’ Despite the phrase being most strongly associated with movement in sports, the term is also applied figuratively to anything that ‘moves rapidly and unpredictably in one direction after another’, as in: ‘Production bobs and weaves from week to week.’
9. lead with one’s chin
When you lead with your chin in boxing, you’re ‘sticking your neck out’, or leaving yourself unprotected. Figuratively, this refers to speaking or behaving incautiously. Boxers who are known to have glass jaws – or, in other words, boxers who are particularly susceptible to opponents’ punches – should avoid leading with their chins.
Although modern boxing doesn’t incorporate hats, amateur boxing in the early 19th century sometimes did – in the form of accepting a challenge. When the crowd was called upon to provide a challenger for a boxer, someone might literally throw their hat into the ring to take up the call. Today, the phrase throw one’s hat into the ring still refers to the taking up of a challenge, though more often in non-physically combative arenas. For instance, one might refer to a politician announcing a run for office as having ‘thrown her hat into the ring’.
11. roll with the punches
This phrase has obvious connections to boxing; when a boxer rolls with the punches, they move their body away from the blows of their opponent, thus lessening the force of the impact. The figurative sense of the phrase means ‘adapting oneself to adverse circumstances.’
This playful-sounding term refers to a technique in which a boxer ‘pretends to be trapped against the ropes, goading an opponent to throw tiring ineffective punches’. The tactic is associated with Muhammad Ali (b. 1942), who coined the term in the 1970s. Today, the term is sometimes used in political circles, as in this example from a 1999 article in The New Republic, ‘Clinton spent the next two years playing rope-a-dope with Newt Gingrich in hopes of living to fight another day.’